Two bills, one problem

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden talks about the work he has done in Congress at a town hall meeting earlier this year in Boardman.

If there is one thing Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden can agree on, it is changing how the U.S. pays for battling increasingly large and expensive wildfires burning vast swaths the American West.

The current practice, known as “fire borrowing,” essentially forces the federal government to shift money away from fire prevention programs to foot the bill for firefighting, which topped a record $2.5 billion in 2017.

Walden, Oregon’s lone Republican congressman in Washington, D.C., has called fire borrowing an “endless cycle,” while Wyden, a Democrat, recently described it as a “broken system.” Both men are calling for a permanent fix to the problem, albeit through clashing proposals, where the similarities end.

Wyden, along with fellow Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, have joined a bipartisan group of senators pushing for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, which would make federal disaster funding available when firefighting costs exceed the 10-year average.

In a letter sent Tuesday to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, the senators urged passing the bill as part of a comprehensive disaster aid package. The Trump administration has committed to releasing that package sometime in the coming weeks.

“Year after year, the broken wildfire budgeting system shortchanges prevention funding, literally adding fuel to fires,” Wyden said in a statement. “Putting an end to fire borrowing would at long last allow America to get ahead of the West’s natural disasters — wildfires.”

In October, the Senate did pass a $36.5 billion emergency supplemental that included $576.5 million to fight wildfires, in addition $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion for National Flood Insurance Program debt forgiveness and $1.27 billion for nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico.

That package, however, did not include a long-term fix for fire borrowing.

Walden, on the other hand, has publicly supported for the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which passed the House last week. Dubbed the Westerman Bill for its chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, the controversial bill also includes a provision for ending fire borrowing with FEMA dollars, but it goes on to address forest management by expediting certain logging projects and fast-tracking environmental review.

Speaking to reporters last week, Walden said the bill — a version of which has passed the House for five straight years — will likely require some compromise in the Senate, though it has a good opportunity of reaching the President’s desk under a more receptive administration.

Wyden, however, remains opposed to the bill which he said is “freighted with anti-environmental riders that create more problems than they solve, and that would likely harm forest health.” He said the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is the best way to fix fire borrowing and secure dependable funding for future restoration.

The Westerman Bill attempts to accelerate the pace and scale of that work by providing categorical exclusions for tree thinning projects up to 10,000 acres in size, or 30,000 acres if they are developed by a collaborative group. A categorical exclusion would help speed up environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The bill also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to create a pilot program for resolving lawsuits filed against forest management projects in arbitration, as opposed to going to court, and limits plaintiffs’ ability to recover their attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act.

Opponents argue the bill caters to logging interests at the expense of forests, gutting both NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. The bill did pass the House in a bipartisan 232-188 vote, and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

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